Let's talk about how pirates affected the development of Los Angeles.

As a break from my usual posts about housing and transport, this is an essay about pirates.

Most coastal cities in America follow a pretty standard pattern. Nearly all of them grew up around a port, so it follows naturally that the metropolitan center of gravity is still there today. Downtown SF is on San Francisco Bay; Manhattan is literally on the Hudson; Philadelphia sits on the Delaware; DC sits on the Potomac. But LA is weird. Unlike every other major coastal city in North America, Downtown LA is a full 20 miles from the Pacific.

Pirates are to blame.

Wait, what? Pirates? Like, skull and crossbones, yo-ho-ho pirates?

Yes. Those kinds of pirates. LA was originally established way the hell inland because LA was founded by the Spanish, and the Spanish were paranoid about pirates attacking their cities. This paranoia had a really, really good basis in history, because the Spanish learned the hard way that cities needed to be protected from pirates.

See, the oldest Spanish cities established in the Americas were all ports. (In some cases, the Spanish took over existing cities like Tenochtitlan/Mexico City or Cuzco, Peru, but that's not the topic of this essay.) Santo Domingo (founded 1491), Havana (1519), Veracruz (1519) and San Juan, Puerto Rico (1521) are all built the way you'd expect a city to be built: the city spreads out from the port, and the city's center even today is within a few miles of the water. It's what the English did in Boston, what the Dutch did in New York, and what the French did in New Orleans.


Thing is, the Spanish success in conquering the Americas eventually caught up with it. It's virtually impossible to defend an empire stretching from Tierra del Fuego to Cape Mendocino, and Spain's European rivals figured that out very quickly. (As someone once said, "mo' money, mo' problems.") In the first century after Columbus, French, English and Dutch pirates were already wreaking merry hell on Spanish possessions. French pirate François le Clerc (the first pirate with a known peg leg) burned Santiago, Cuba in 1554 and destroyed it so thoroughly that the Spanish moved the capital to Havana. Sir Francis Drake attacked Nombre de Dios, Panama in 1573, hijacked the Spanish silver train, and stole so much silver and gold that his men couldn't carry it all home.

No Mo' Yo Ho Ho

This was a problem for the Spanish crown, so they made a bunch of changes to their settlement laws, which explain why downtown LA is where it is. First, they decided to drastically reduce the number of active ports, and to fortify the remainder. If it was important, like Veracruz, San Juan or Cartagena, they'd spend a hatful of money and build fortresses. (Side note: if you ever visit Puerto Rico, the walled city of Old San Juan and the castle of San Felipe del Morro are marvels to behold.) Second, and most importantly, the Spanish established laws to govern the settlement of new towns under King Charles I and Philip II collectively called the Leyes de Indias to make them defensible against pirates.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan, PR.

Wait, I don't follow. What do a bunch of old Spanish laws have to do with DTLA being all the way the hell inland?

The Leyes de Indias set down rules for where you could build a new town, and how to lay out a new town, and they applied even in the most remote parts of the Empire. Most importantly, the Leyes de Indias largely banned the colonists from building new port towns. There were other requirements - you had to build a city around a central plaza, on a water source, and with a diagonal grid of streets. But most importantly you had to build your town inland, one day's travel from the ocean, to make it harder for pirates to attack. If a city got important enough, the Crown could build a small port on the water which would be easier to defend from pirates. (For example, the center of Caracas is over a mountain pass from the port at La Guaira.)

These laws, originally passed to make cities defensible against pirates, lasted through the rest of the colonial period even after the piratical threat was largely over. They still applied when LA was settled in 1781.

Now, let's think about how this applies to Los Angeles, because Downtown LA fits all of the requirements of the Leyes de Indias.



The Plaza Olvera at the center of the old Pueblo of Los Angeles is on the LA River, it's got a diagonal grid, and it's 20 miles away from San Pedro Bay. It's a pain in the ass to get to San Pedro on the 110 freeway even today, and it was even harder when you had to ride a horse.

That means that in the 19th century, when the railways arrived and oil was discovered, Los Angeles was already the center of the region. So, it made sense for new settlers to put down roots in the existing town, never mind that it was really inconvenient to get to by water. Eventually, as LA grew, the city fathers realized that they had to find a port to secure the city's future, which is why LA eventually annexed San Pedro and built an artificial harbor in San Pedro Bay.

But by the time the harbor was built, the metropolitan center of gravity had already been established in DTLA. If the English, or the Dutch, or the French, or anybody else had initially settled SoCal, you probably would've seen the city be centered on San Pedro Bay, where Long Beach is today. But because it was the Spanish, and the Spanish were paranoid about pirates, Downtown LA is 20 miles away from the Pacific, on a river which is now encased in concrete.


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